Blackface: offending costumes roil UVA

Since the news broke last Tuesday that three guests at a co-sponsored fraternity Halloween party had come dressed in blackface, the question of race and racism at UVA has once again come to dominate discussion on Grounds.

The administration and student body have been volleying accusations and calls for reform at the two fraternities that sponsored the party, Kappa Alpha and Zeta Psi, as well as on the fraternity/sorority system in general.

"To engage in such behavior or tacitly support such behavior diminishes both the dignity of the individual and the collective," wrote Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Lampkin in a November 20th Cavalier Daily letter. "Most of all, we are diminished as a community, and the spaces between us grow larger. We pay a price in trust lost and doors closed."

After pictures of the offending costumes were seen on an internet party photo site, the national offices for Kappa Alpha and Zeta Psi suspended their local chapters, and the University's Inter-Fraternity Council Judiciary Committee launched its own internal investigation.

Although the pictures were promptly removed from at the request of the Kappa Alpha Order, copies circulated through the student body via email all week.

By Thursday, November 21, Kappa Alpha's national administration lifted the suspension after determining that no member of the local chapter was directly involved in the incident– a "deplorable" decision according to UVA's dean of African American affairs, M. Rick Turner.

"I think it was a very grievous act on the part of the fraternity in the first place, and they obviously didn't take it very seriously. They should be punished as much as their bylaws would state by the University and by the national organization. And I think we have to show some leadership in order to deal with [this incident], because I don't think we've shown the appropriate leadership yet."

One leadership response came Friday in the form of a University-wide email from President John Casteen.

"Sad to say, this is not an utterly isolated incident," wrote Casteen. "African-American students and many of us who care deeply about their well-being and about equity are painfully aware that similar incidents have occurred, and more frequently than anyone likes."

Citing the Federal courts' forced desegregation of the University in 1950 over the objections of the Commonwealth, Casteen wrote, "We recognize that racial tolerance and mutual respect do not necessarily have long histories here."

No one had anything good to say about the unknown man who dressed as Uncle Sambo, complete with exaggerated red lips. However, in a letter to the Cavalier Daily, a UVA alumnus defended the tennis sisters costumes as innocent attempts to portray famous people.

"I hope that one day," the alumnus wrote, "I will help paint my kid's face black when he or she is trying to portray the President of the United States."

Meanwhile, despite the news that no Kappa Alpha member actually dressed in blackface, and unconfirmed reports that no Zeta Psi members were directly involved either, the fraternities' presidents did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. As of press time, the two fraternities have yet to make any public statement regarding the incident.

On Friday, November 22, some African-American students began distributing a flyer entitled "Black-Face Minstrelsy 101" and featuring the image of one partier dressed as a blackfaced Uncle Sam, his painted red lips smiling brightly for the photographer. The flyer gives a three paragraph history of blackface minstrel performance in the United States­­ the at one time widely accepted practice of white (and sometimes even black) men and women singing and dancing as caricatures of African-Americans in Vaudevillian-type shows ­­ and then asks, "Is blackness truly beautiful? Are black people a joke and not to be taken seriously? To this day, 170 years after the minstrels first appeared, the question remains. You make the decision."

One version of the flyer left on hundreds of cars parked in the University area and handed out to students between classes even features the image of a UVA Glee Club performer dressed in blackface in a 1914 show. No organization took direct responsibility for the flyer.

This incident comes at a time when many University faculty members are engaged in research concerning blackface minstrelsy in American culture.

English professor Stephen Railton directs an NEA funded and UVA sponsored multimedia archive on Uncle Tom's Cabin that features a section on minstrel shows ( English professor Eric Lott's 1993 book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class has been lauded as a definitive study of the pop culture workings of blackface and even serves as the eponymy of Bob Dylan's most recent album. And even a cursory glance at the University's course offerings yields dozens of titles such as "Race and Performance in 20th Century America" and "Fictions of Black Identity."

Still, this week's events reveal a lingering racial tension that many students and faculty experience on a daily basis. "As a first year in 1993," wrote UVA alum Melissa Murray in a November 22nd letter to the Cavalier Daily, "I stood in line awaiting entry to a fraternity party. At the door, I was told that it was a 'no-nigger zone.' As a fourth-year Lawn resident, the word 'nigger' was written on my door."

Another letter in the Cavalier Daily, this one from Hans Bader '91, warned that if administrators start handing out penalties, they could face free speech lawsuits. "Wearing blackface is as protected by the First Amendment as preaching black superiority is," wrote Bader.

Dean Turner points to a thin mask of playfulness concealing a far more damning and ensconced case of racial stereotyping at southern colleges and universities. "They take the opportunity during Halloween or some other particular time and they act very innocent about it, but it's an age-old trend for white fraternities and sororities at southern institutions to make jokes and deny any kind of responsibility. It's just a racist practice that they've gotten from their fathers."

In March, a white architecture school student called all "playaz and chickenheadz" to his "medallion party." And while this student readily confessed to any alleged party foul, the world has yet to hear a peep from the student who recently dressed as "Uncle Sambo." What was he thinking?